Armin Zadeh, MD, Ph.D.
Happiness in Life: Is There a Proven Path?
The easiest and most difficult endeavor in life—in three steps.
Posted May 20, 2018
Asked what they want out of life, most people answer love, health, and happiness. But what is happiness? Is there a guaranteed path to happiness? Is it wealth? Recognition? Interestingly, even though we intuitively know that wealth and recognition do not grant happiness, many of us spend most of our lives striving for these two.
Let’s take a step back and examine happiness. There are moments of bliss when we feel like hugging the world, often after something wonderful has happened to us — a new love, or a rare achievement. However, the excitement over events typically does not last. Eventually, the feelings fade and we wait for the next excitement. Temporary situational elation is not synonymous with “happiness in life."
“Life happiness” relates to how we perceive our purpose and path in life. Largely, our level of happiness reflects our assessment of whether our expectations of life are being met. As such, and very importantly, happiness depends predominantly on our perception; it depends how we view ourselves. This may appear trivial. After all, we all know about the whole “glass half empty, half full” thing. If two people are in an identical situation one may perceive her/himself as lucky while the other may feel cursed.
The key is that we are not helpless as to how we perceive our situation—we have control. Sure, there are some inherent patterns as to how people experience life. Research suggests that a certain gene constellation is associated with a greater probability of being happy (1). However, as with most predispositions, we can greatly modify the impact of our genes. A great analogy I once heard was to compare genes with the floor plan of a building. Houses may have similar floor plans but each can look very different on the inside. What we do with our house depends on us. For our house to look nice, and for us to feel at home in it, takes some effort. The situation is not dissimilar to finding happiness in ourselves no matter what “blueprint” we were given.
A major challenge is how to deal with expectations from our environment regarding how we should be or what we should have. Of course, these expectations are entirely arbitrary, yet they may have a profound effect on us—unless we have freed ourselves from our dependence on external affirmation. Few have done so and it’s often not an easy process, particularly, if we are oblivious to such dependence.
Our understanding of our “self” is critical for perceiving happiness. It is closely linked to our comfort with our existence. On one extreme, there is the narcissist who struggles with self-acceptance and is caught in an obsessive cycle of self-validation while failing to achieve lasting happiness. On the other end of the spectrum is the altruist who recognizes that life is not about herself/himself and tends to be happier than others. Functional MRI imaging of human brains has demonstrated a “hard-wired” connection of being altruistic and the perception of contentment, even joy (2). It likely is the result of an evolutionary advantage; biologists point to a strong sense of compassion as one of the key factors for the success of human development. The survival of the fittest is not necessarily the physically strongest but the one with the strongest alliances—often knitted by kinship (3). In the end, it does come down to love.
Happiness is a matter of our mind—largely, our choice. A simple solution to achieve happiness is to deflate our perception of our significance, particularly, in comparison to peers. As Eastern philosophy discovered thousands of years ago: to desire is undesirable. In examining jealousy, competitiveness, and envy, we can see they are rooted in our need for affirmation of our self-worth. In appreciating our inherent worth stemming from our uniqueness—never to be replicated in the same way—we may find ourselves more impervious to external judgements and at ease with ourselves.
Being alive itself is valuable—we are part of all life. If we were the lone life on this planet, not only would we perish within days, it would also render our existence meaningless. Furthermore, from the viewpoint of life, we are all unique while, concurrently, we are also all the same. It doesn’t matter to life whether we are an amoeba or the most powerful person on earth—we will eventually disintegrate and re-enter the flow of life with all others to create new, unique forms of life. As such, we are indeed part of something bigger and will always remain so—as far as we can see. The continuity in life is life itself.
The challenge remains to turn these insights into a permanent, different perspective. This is hard and therefore, not often achieved. Too strong are the lures of our ego. One could argue that the effort to change our mindset is probably more justified than spending our energy striving for many other things. This does not mean, however, we have to become monks or saints but rather aim for more balance between our self-obsession and a broader look on life.
In short, happiness can be achieved with these three steps:
- View yourself as a unique form of life—never to be replicated.
- Identify yourself as part of all life and equal to other life forms.
- Live to nurture other life.
This concept, in essence, was recognized thousands of years ago and has been proven to work. It is simply the result of recognizing our biology. Of course, putting it into practice is not all that easy—but then again, all great achievements in life require effort. It’s our choice how to devote our efforts.
1. Okbay A, Baselmans BM, De Neve JE, et al. Genetic variants associated with subjective well-being, depressive symptoms, and neuroticism identified through genome-wide analyses. Nat Genet. 2016;48:624-33.
2. Moll J, Krueger F, Zahn R, Pardini M, de Oliveira-Souza R, Grafman J. Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006;103:15623-8.
3. Loye D. Darwin in love: The rest of the story. Osanto University Press, 2013.